By Rachel Christian
Until three months ago, Ron Wolek didn’t know professional beard competitions existed.
That’s not to say the 35-year-old Kissimmee resident was unfamiliar with growing one.
As a third-generation barber who’s penned a book on facial hair, there’s no doubt Wolek knows how to grow a great beard.
“I just didn’t know anything like that existed,” he said. “It’s right up my alley, but I wasn’t aware competing for best beard was even a thing.”
Wolek became enlightened earlier this year, when a group of zealous Canadians reached out to him on Instagram. They dug his locks and encouraged him to compete in the Vancouver Men’s Facial Hair Club Championship June 1.
Wolek, a Poinciana High School graduate, didn’t think much of the offer at first, but the Canadians were persistent.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Well, I might actually win,” he said.
Wolek ultimately placed second at the event, losing by a hair to a Vancouver native with a clear hometown advantage. But the experience proved positive for the Osceola County resident, who dedicated the win to his grandfather Hank.
“I never met my grandfather, but out of all my relatives, I look like him the most,” Wolek said. “And I’ve always had a curiosity to know what he was like.”
His curiosity piqued a few years ago when Wolek’s uncle told him Hank had run a popular mustache club at a family-owned bar in Syracuse, N.Y., in the 1940s and 50s. Wolek eventually stumbled on a grainy 1963 newspaper clipping featuring his grandfather and 11 other members of the club a few days before a charity shave-off.
The vintage black-and-white aesthetic of the photo, which featured checkered ties, thick wire frame glasses, and of course, neatly clipped mustaches, appealed to Wolek, who had just launched a niche online business selling professional quality faux beards to theater and TV production companies.
The custom wig and facial hair site, www.mustacheparlor.com, launched five years ago. Wolek has since crafted custom pieces for entertainers, costume designers, Santa Claus impersonators and even Pittsburgh soccer club members competing in an annual charity tournament.
The designer traces his interest in hair and make-up all the way back to his childhood and his mother, Janet, who worked on the hair and makeup design team at Disney World.
“My mom would come home, and my sister and I were kind of her guinea pigs for new ideas,” he said. “I grew up around it, and it always interested me.”
Wolek initially majored in graphic design before attending the barberry and cosmetology program at Academy of Advanced Training in Kissimmee.
Wolek cut hair with an ex-Navy barber for his first professional gig after graduating. Over the years, he’s held a series of film and stage jobs before landing the biggest barberry gig of his career.
From 2012 to 2014, Wolek worked as the official special effects artist, barber and mustache-maker for a national tour of the Broadway play War Horse. The tour spanned 35 states with additional stops in Canada and Japan.
The actors in War Horse played both English and German soldiers during World War I, and the length of their mustache were a key identifier in what group they belonged.
“The actors loved my mustaches,” Wolek said. “After that, I started my website, and it helped bring all my skills full circle.”
Wolek’s website continues to turn a healthy profit, though the design artist said he still picks up side projects throughout the year to supplement his income. His next big job is stage and make-up work for Howl-o-Scream haunted house at SeaWorld in Texas.
As for the hair-raising world of professional beard competitions, Wolek isn’t sure if he will pursue any other contests in the future.
“I think I’m good with second place,” he said. “Then again, there’s this competition coming up soon in Toronto. So we’ll see.”